BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
Stroke rates in the finals at the World Rowing Championships made a significant jump in 2017 and 2018. In some races, such as the lightweight men’s pair in 2017 and the men’s coxless four in 2018, it seemed rates were going through the roof–possibly indicative of a trend.
Statistics published annually by Valery Kleshnev identified an increase of stroke rates between one and two strokes per minute on average over the whole 2,000-meter racecourse after about 10 years of steady numbers.
Although stroke rates have risen in general, the impression that stroke rates have “skyrocketed” derives mainly from the performance of select top-level crews.
The way the Irish lightweight men’s pair in 2017 and the Australian and Italian fours in 2018 chased down the racecourse was astonishing, but they remained clear outliers with over-the-top stroke rates.
There are examples to the contrary, too. Most of the gold medalists at the 2019 World Rowing Championships rowed either with the lowest stroke rate or at a lower rate than most of their competitors in their final.
It is unlikely that boat design influenced the stroke- rate increase in 2017 and 2018. The minimum boat weight has been fixed for decades, and small changes in boat shape don’t seem to favor rowing at higher stroke rates. Oars may have been a factor with the introduction of thinner shaft diameters that have less air resistance, especially during the recovery, but there may be other, more important reasons.
Stroke rate and a rower’s power output are closely related. To produce the highest power during a 2,000-meter race starting at stroke rate 20/min., you’ll get better results by increasing the stroke rate.
But there is a limit. At some point, further increases in stroke rate will result in diminishing returns, as reflected by the inverted U that shows the optimal point in efficiency studies. This optimal point–the highest power at a specific stroke rate–is different for individual crews.
Perhaps coaches and athletes in the first two years of the Olympic cycle tried something new by focusing on higher stroke rates–a specific target, perhaps, in training and tactics. Yet, interestingly, the speed of racing did not increase with the higher stroke rates. On the contrary, the speed of the winners at the world championships steadily declined. So it may be that they passed the above-mentioned “optimal point,” which can be explained biomechanically. When watching these high-rate crews, it appears they sacrifice stroke length, especially at the catch. This, of course, leads to less-efficient strokes, which leads to loss of speed.
The coming years will show in which direction stroke rate and boat speed will evolve. Unfortunately, we had to miss this year’s pinnacle racing event, and only one international competition–the European championships– was held in the fall. Therefore, any analysis must be conducted with care, since major international players were missing.
One of the races that stood out was the men’s single, with the three medal winners from the 2019 World Rowing Championships again racing each other in the final. In particular, the difference between the high-rate German sculler, Oliver Zeidler (last year’s world champion), and the lower-rate Danish sculler, Sverri Nielsen (last year’s bronze medalist), was noteworthy.
Zeidler, leading most of the race, seemed to lack an extra accelerating gear when three scullers passed him near the end to push him out of the medal ranks. Nielsen, meanwhile, kept his strokes longer and more efficient in the middle of the race (taking about 20 fewer strokes than Zeidler over 2,000 meters), rowed at a rate that was about three strokes lower throughout, and in the process secured gold.
This may be the sign for future developments in international rowing: stroke rates are going slightly up from the pre-2017 level, but keeping strokes long and efficient.